On the drive to school this morning, the kids were being unusually quiet, so I asked my 4-year-old son if he’d thought anymore about what he wanted to be when he grows up.

He’s been really interested in Spider-Man lately, so I was expecting to hear the usual stuff like ‘super hero’ or ‘fireman’. But he flipped the script and said he wanted to cut tumors out of people. That caught me off guard and tugged at my heart strings a little.

Unfortunately, I’ve had to have some tough conversations with him from a pretty young age. One of my younger brothers (his uncle) died in 2021 of a brain tumor at age 37. It was a mixed glioma he had been dealing with for 7 or 8 years, the incurable kind. It was a terribly sad time in my life, one that no doubt impacted my family life. As a result, my son has asked us a lot of questions about my brother and the circumstances surrounding his death.

These are not topics I ever expected to discuss with him at such an early age, and I hate having to tell him about these realities of life. My natural inclination is to shelter him, and I’ve tried to avoid the topic when possible, or to reframe the discussion, but he is very perceptive and can be quite persistent.

I try to wrap these conversations up within feelings of gratitude for the lives we have, or in celebration of the life he lived, or with a focus on being in the present moment. But I also don’t want to deny his real feelings on the issue. It’s a lot for a kid to process, coming into awareness of our finite nature, but it’s clear he knows when I’m not being completely transparent with him.

This morning, he didn’t mention my brother directly when he brought up the tumor comment, but I’m certain that’s where the idea came from. I used this as an opportunity to talk to him about what a surgeon does, how they help people, and that it requires learning a lot of science and how our bodies work. I told him that he could absolutely be a surgeon one day.

I didn’t have a dad at his age, so I’m especially sensitive to how my words and actions might influence him. Whether he becomes a surgeon or a mechanic, I hope more than anything that I can be a good role model for my kids, and to do a decent job preparing them emotionally to recognize their blessings, weather the difficult times, and have the confidence to go after their dreams.